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Absent memory architecture

15 of October '21

The endless discussion about the development of Pilsudski Square in Warsaw and the reconstruction of the Saski Palace has returned again.

TheSaski Palace, which has been rebuilt many times, took its final form in the first half of the nineteenth century after being rebuilt according to a design by Adam Idzkowski. The elevation of the palace to an already symbolic status took place in 1925 with the unveiling of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in its central arcades. The palace was blown up by German soldiers in December 1944. Only the arcade with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier survived, becoming an even stronger national symbol. In the postwar period, countless competitions were organized for the development of Victory Square, now Pilsudski Square, but no decision was ever made to implement the awarded projects. After 1989, depending on the political options, the concept of rebuilding the palace returned, each time arousing heated discussions and controversy....

In 2004-2006, the palace's foundations were uncovered, only to be backfilled with sand in 2008. Recently, on the initiative of the President of the Republic of Poland, the Prime Minister along with the ruling party, a special law was passed by the parliament, which allows the reconstruction of the palace to be undertaken, and as usual, this initiative arouses very diverse and heated emotions and discussions that go far beyond the substance of the problem. The non-existent Brühl Palace is also inextricably linked to the Saxon Palace. Rebuilt many times by Tylman of Gameren, Johann Friedrich Knöbel, Dominik Merlini, Karol Kozlowski, it was one of the most beautiful rococo palaces of Warsaw. Before World War II, the palace was taken over by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The reconstruction project, including the addition of a new wing, was designed by architect Bohdan Pniewski. The work was completed in 1937. The palace, which during the war was the seat of Warsaw District Governor Ludwig Fischer, was blown up in December 1944. The palace's interiors designed by Bohdan Pniewski, of which no iconographic material has survived, are to this day an almost mythical symbol of modern luxury interiors of the interwar period.

{Image@url=,alt=Warszawa, Brühl Palace before World War II,title=Warsaw, Brühl Palace before World War II}

Warsaw, Brühl Palace before World War II}

The ghosts of these palaces have become a double symbol, the barbarism of the German occupier, but also an element of the current games of political options. The syndrome of these palaces is by no means isolated in Polish, European and world architecture alike. The history of architecture is a description of the gradual process of replacing the entire architectural and urban fabric. This process takes place relatively so slowly that even over the period of a generation it is hardly noticeable, even though it progresses in an inevitable manner. Over time, only a few objects remain from successive historical periods, not necessarily in their original form, whose artistic, emotional or cultural value has been considered by societies to be so high as to be worth leaving behind and protecting. Some of them outgrow their physicality and, over time, grow into a symbol or sign in the public consciousness. Recognized characteristics of symbols are their universality and acceptance, the same understanding of them by societies, as well as the permanence of their functioning in social consciousness. In the case of architecture, some objects have become symbols in global dimensions like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica or the Parthenon in Athens, or in national dimensions like the Wawel Castle in Krakow.

Achieving the rank of symbol pushes to the background, although it does not deprive them, other attributes of the building, such as aesthetic and artistic value or historical or urban significance. However, an intriguing phenomenon occurs here - a symbol in architecture does not necessarily have the attribute of current physical existence. The collective memory and consciousness of societies also stores in a permanent way those buildings that have long ceased to exist, and the idea of their physical shape has been strongly blurred over time. These are usually buildings that were destroyed violently, most often as a result of warfare, revolution or other such events. This means that their fate and functioning in society were interrupted in such a radical way that their absence was so acute that they became common, socially understood symbols. This very interesting phenomenon is illustrated by a few selectively and subjectively chosen examples:

Temples in Jerusalem

The symbolic significance of non-existent buildings goes back to ancient times. On a hill in Jerusalem was the First Temple, built between 966-959 BC during the reign of King Solomon, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The only sources concerning it are available in the Bible in the Book of Kings of the Old Testament. The Temple was demolished by the armies of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II probably in 587 BC. The Second Temple was built between 520 and 515 BC, and was demolished during the reign of Herod the Great. A new one was built in its place, with courtyards, which was completed in 20 BC. It was from this Temple, according to the Gospels, that Christ was to drive out the merchants. The notion of the Third Temple refers to the idea, unrealized to this day, of rebuilding the Temple after it was demolished by the Romans in 70 AD. In its place now stands a Muslim shrine with a golden dome (the Mosque of Omar), built in the late 7th and early 8th centuries AD. Of the Temple Mount only half of the rows of stones remain today, a section of the wall known as the Western Wall is Judaism's holiest site. Regardless of its sacred and mystical symbol, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is also an enduring symbol of the centuries-old conflicts in that part of the world that continue to this day.


Jerusalem, reconstruction of the Second Temple

capture of the Bastille

In modern Europe, the Bastille prison edifice, architecturally uninteresting and located around the corners of Paris, became an enduring symbol of the French Revolution and the end of the feudal order. The date of the capture of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, remains a French national holiday to this day. The capture of the poorly defended Bastille by little more than a hundred soldiers and the release of only a few prisoners with common criminal pasts had no significance for the creation of the symbol here. The Bastille itself was not demolished, contrary to some accounts, by the storming populace, but by a construction company a year later. Its capture itself was a de facto minor episode, but was later mythologized in revolutionary iconography, perhaps to obscure the bloody events of later revolutionary terror.


Paris, storming the Bastille

The new Reich Chancellery in Berlin

Paradoxically, it happens that the efforts of society and the authorities aim to erase the significance of an important architectural symbol by dismantling it and obliterating traces of its existence, especially when it concerns infamous periods in its history. Such was the fate of the New Reich Chancellery (Die Neue Reichskanzlei) in Berlin, which was the seat of Third Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler from 1939 to 1945. The Chancellery on Voßstraße was built according to a design by architect Albert Speer in 1938, in a monumental style intended to emphasize the power of the Nazi state. The Chancellery was only partially damaged during the fighting for Berlin, but was demolished by the occupying Soviet authorities in 1949. The site of the Chancellery was located on the eastern side during the partition of Berlin and in the 1980s was built up with large apartment blocks. Today only small street signs indicate its existence. Nonetheless, both the Chancellery and the bunker in its gardens, where Adolf Hitler committed suicide, are referenced in a huge number of books and documentaries and feature films, cementing it for generations to come as a grim symbol of Nazism, despite strenuous attempts to obliterate its physical existence.


Berlin, courtyard of the New Reich Chancellery

Silesian Museum in Katowice

A similar fate of obliteration of collective memory was experienced by the Silesian Museum building. In 1936, construction began on a super-modern museum building in Katowice (across from the Provincial Office), designed by architect Karol Schayer. This seven-story building, with an area of about 90,000 square meters, was crowned with a modernist, classicizing tower portico with sculptures by Stanislaw Szukalski. Finishing work was underway in August 1939, and the museum was scheduled to open to the public a year later. After the German army occupied Katowice in March 1940, the Nazi authorities decided to completely destroy the edifice. Demolition was completed in 1944. The museum, which had never been opened, was demolished by the Germans as a manifest symbol of the Polishness of Upper Silesia, as the planned profile of the exhibition was to accentuate it to some extent, in contrast to the museum built a few years earlier in then-German Bytom (also in modernist style) according to a design by architects A. Stütz and H. Hatler, the National Museum (Landesmuseum), accentuating the German belonging of Upper Silesia after the Nazis came to power. This was an unprecedented event in the occupied countries, where, although there was looting of exhibits, no museum was demolished. After the war, the communist authorities made no attempt to rebuild the building, seeing it in turn as the work of the ideologically hostile Sanation authorities, and in its place was erected in the 1950s a socialist-realist trade union headquarters building. Organizationally restored in 1984, the Silesian Museum was not erected in a different location, after the former Katowice mine, until 2015. Despite this, the spirit of the defunct Silesian Museum building is still alive in the social memory of the Upper Silesian population.


Katowice, Silesian Museum

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